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Undercover cop-turned-drug reform activist Neil Woods talks about “the most important social justice issue of our time”.

Series: What’s wrong with drugs?

“Hold on a minute, you used to do what?” Neil Woods is used to this reaction. After over 20 years of going undercover for police drugs squads and busting some of the most violent drug gangsters in the UK, he has now become a fervent advocate of drug legalisation.

When we meet, Woods is about to take part in an event on the future of drug legislation with Thangam Debbonaire MP and Steve Rolles, policy adviser for Transform, a campaign for drug policy reform.

Over a bite to eat beforehand, the music lover speculates on the correlation at festivals between the music genre and the drugs imbibed by the crowds. Metal festivals are boozy, Woods says, whereas dance music sees people predominantly off their nut on ecstasy.

And Woods would know. As revealed in his whistleblowing book Good Cop, Bad War (Ebury, 2016), the MDMA-fuelled dance scene of the 1990s is what gave him his first glimpse into the drug world. At a time when superclubs grew in number, he used to hang out in the clubs undercover as a punter, trapping drug dealers that operated there.

The end didn’t justify the means

The so-called ‘war on drugs’ picked up pace in the nineties, when the Home Office invested resources in drugs policing against a political backdrop emphasising prohibition and punishment. It’s this hardline approach to policing drugs which Woods says has caused immense social harm.

The government’s plan backfired. Rather than clean drugs off the streets, organised criminals responded to the police tactics by becoming increasingly violent, says Woods. The violence paid off, he explains, “because the most successful ones didn’t get grassed up”. This logic falls down to fear, which “became a commodity in the 1990s”. Indeed, to reduce their sentence, drug offenders would give some intelligence about the drug trade but would avoid implicating the hardest gangsters for fear of retribution once they got out of jail.

“The reason organised crime was getting more violent over time was down to me, and people like me.”

The impact hit vulnerable communities hardest. In the context of an explosion in heroin use in the 1980s, certain working class, post-industrial areas, battling poverty and unemployment, were at the mercy of organised crime groups. Woods recalls that some communities were so intimidated by drug criminals that “people wouldn’t dare to report a burglary if their house was broken into because it was in a trading zone, and the local gangster didn’t want the attention of the police”.

Posing as a ‘junkie’ in numerous undercover jobs, Woods experienced the dealers’ brutality first hand. When he was suspected of being a cop, he endured interrogations with a knife against his throat or crotch. Luckily for him he always managed to maintain lucidity and keep his cover story credible.

During his career, Woods’ activities helped put people behind bars for a total of over a thousand years. But he spent years slowly realising that something wasn’t right. Woods eventually came to the conclusion that, “The reason organised crime was getting more violent over time was down to me, and people like me”.

As a former undercover cop, he acknowledges his role in manipulating vulnerable drug users by befriending them just to get closer to the most violent people. After a bust, they risked becoming victims of retributions by the organised groups’ increasing violence.

Woods references Robert Peel’s 19th century principles for civil policing, which seek to engage with the approval of the public rather than physical force. But these we contravened by the police’s methods. He says he’d adopted a militaristic viewpoint which dictates that on the battlefield “you can lose people to win the battle”, and points out that no other aspect of policing abides by this attritional approach. “It was worse than futile,” he says, “because of all the harm I was causing, and the end didn’t justify the means at all.”

Catching someone for possession is “lazy”

Yet the issue lied with an underlying problem of attitude prevalent in the police force. The idea being that the fault was with “people who took drugs, made a mistake, and then didn’t have the willpower to get out of it,” says Woods.

“incredible amount of support [for drug reform] and it’s contributed to that social movement growth within the police service”

The mood is changing as there is “growing views amongst rank and file – not all – of police who would rather be focusing on social harm”, which seeks to understand the wider sources and effects of harm. If Woods was “considered public enemy number one in the undercover policing world” for disclosing tactics and criticising their inefficiency, he is adamant that there is now an “incredible amount of support [for drug reform] and it’s contributed to that social movement growth within the police service”.

As chairman of the UK arm of the advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), Woods says there has been a recent surge in the number of recruits.

Up and down the country, police forces have also been reviewing their approach to the  policing of drugs. Following in the steps of Durham County police, Avon & Somerset deprioritised catching drug users for possession in 2016. The ‘diversion’ strategy, away from the typical war on drugs approach, is supported by a programme where offenders attend a three hour long educational workshop on the effects of drugs delivered by local drug services to get their charges dropped.

By the time he left the police force, Woods says, a police officer catching someone for possession was “widely looked down upon as someone who is lazy, as it’s an easy job it gets you off the streets for a few hours”. For purposes of harm reduction, other police forces have allowed drug testing at festivals.

“Break the law”, in parliament

On a political level, despite the government’s drug strategy, “the moralising ideology in parliament has reduced drastically,” says Woods. More MPs than ever before spoke out in favour of drug policy reform during the last parliamentary debate in July.

One veteran MP and longtime advocate of reform, Paul Flynn (Newport West), even called for the “barbaric, stupidity, and cruelty of government policy… to be met with civil disobedience” as he urged people to come to parliament and “break the law” by consuming cannabis. In a recent interview with the Cable Bristol West MP Thangam Debbonaire has stated that “keeping drugs illegal isn’t helping anyone”.

“It’s a reign of terror that the police is causing when the doors get smashed in for a raid. As a police officer I can say that.”

While applauding MPs for their progressive stance, Woods says advocacy is most powerful when it comes from people with firsthand experience, or those like him, who have served on the frontline: “We at LEAP UK have credibility. Politicians can rant or moralise as much as they like, they’ve not been there. I’ve been there, and I can say this does not work, this is a nightmare.”

Likening the growing support for drug legalisation to the struggles to decriminalise homosexuality and win the right to equal marriage, Woods says, “It’s the social movement that’s important”. And the way to carry the message is to organise platforms for discussion which “stretch outside the normal echo chambers, and speak to new audiences”.

Alongside the police, the most powerful voices for change are from people such as “a grieving mother, a brother or a sister, or someone who has actually lost someone, to this drug war”.

“The need for drug policy reform is the most important social justice issue of our time,” says Woods. “It’s a reign of terror that the police is causing when the doors get smashed in for a raid. As a police officer I can say that.”

This piece is published as part of the Cable’s ongoing series ‘What’s wrong with drugs?

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